The Finnish Wolfpack Are a Collectivistic Underdog

If ever, a Rudyard Kipling quote is now called for: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of Wolf is the Pack.”

The obvious reason is that Wolfpack – the nickname of the Finnish national team – are the first opponent of Team USA in FIBA World Cup 2014. The game takes place on Saturday August 30 in Bilbao, Spain.

The less obvious reason is that the Kipling quote describes aptly what’s great about the Finnish Wolfpack. In that team, the strength of wolf quite literally is the pack.

When it comes to the sum of its parts, the Wolfpack are one of the weaker teams in the World Cup. They only have one player who currently plays in the NBA (Erik Murphy of Cleveland Cavaliers) and another one who has formerly played there (Hanno Mottola with Atlanta Hawks in 2000–02). Additionally, Petteri Koponen was the 30th pick in the 2007 NBA draft but he has never played in the league.

But the Wolfpack do play collectivistic basketball that helps showcase the players’ strengths and hide their weaknesses.

What does collectivistic basketball mean?

Ilies et al (2007) wrote: “Individualism is defined as the extent to which personal interests are given greater importance than the needs of the group. Collectivism, on the other hand, is predominant when the demands and needs of the group take precedence over individual interests.”

So, in collectivistic basketball, players do what’s best for the team. The principle is straightforward, but in real life it isn’t easy to determine whether a player acts individualistically or collectivistically.

Say, is Kobe Bryant’s shooting a fade-away jumper over two defenders an individualistic or collectivistic action? Well, it depends on the context. Is he playing for Lakers or Team USA in the Olympics? What is his team’s style of play like? What’s the game plan? How much time is left on the shot clock? How much time was left on the shot clock when Bryant first got the ball? Was a teammate open? Are we talking about the long-term good of the team or the short-term good?

Even though it’s a complicated question, there are three telltale signs whether a team plays predominantly collectivistic ball. The Finnish Wolfpack exhibit all three signs.

1) Sticking to the style of play.

There is very little variation in the Wolfpack’s tactics from game to game. They play man-to-man defense that they call sideline defense, a style that resembles Bob Kloppenburg’s SOS defense. Their freewheeling, almost freelance offense relies heavily on quick three-pointers and ball screens for their starting PG’s Petteri Koponen and Teemu Rannikko.

Some quick three-pointers by the Wolfpack will look individualistic if you take them out of the Wolfpack context. Most coaches do not want their players to take a semi-open three in transition. Yet that is exactly what the Wolfpack do. In their context, in order for a guard to play collectivistic ball he must take that shot.

On defense, Wolfpack pressure the ball in a way that will sometimes lead to easy lay-ups for the opponents. The same goes for double-teaming the low post from the weak side block.

Are sideline defense and freewheeling offense good tactics? Well, Wolfpack have shown that, when everyone executes them consistently and relentlessly, they may lead to better success than could be anticipated based on the strength of the roster alone. Wolfpack finished 9th in Eurobasket 2011 and 2013 – their highest finishes since the 1960’s. Never before have they made it to the FIBA World Cup.

There is an undervalued quality to Wolfpack’s tactics: they are different from the tactics of other teams in the World Cup. Because of this, the other teams should adjust their customary tactics quite a bit in order to optimally exploit the blind spots of the Wolfpack tactics. That is tough to do, however, because in FIBA tournaments, teams play almost daily.

2) Automatic decision-making.

To a large degree, sticking to the style of play or the game plan is a matter of discipline. In other words, it is something that a good team may achieve in a short time – say, in a World Cup preseason of a few weeks. You can bet that, under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA will play disciplined and team-oriented ball.

However, usually national teams’ preparation periods are not long enough for the teams to automatize their decision-making. That is why national teams do not achieve the same level of tactical fluency as the top club teams achieve. Cumulative effect won’t get the job done, either, because players and coaches and tactics change from one summer to the next.

Wolfpack are a rare exception. Head coach Henrik Dettmann’s second tenure as the national team leader has lasted for over ten years. One assistant coach has been on the staff from the go. In summer 2004, no less than five players of the current Wolfpack were already on the team. And yes, the 2004 team played sideline defense and freewheeling offense.

So, cumulatively, the Wolfpack have played together for a huge amount of time under the same coaches and using the same basic tactical principles. Their collective decision-making has become automatized to a degree that will not be achieved by any other team in the World Cup. There is no hesitation, no delays, no second-guessing.

That’s the reason why rumors about NBA veteran Drew Gooden joining the Wolfpack in the last minute never sounded plausible to me. I thought Gooden would have damaged the collectivism of the team, and the net gain would have been negative. (Both Gooden and Murphy have a Finnish mother.)

3) Technical adaptations

To me, this is the highest level of collectivism: players not only execute the team’s style of play automatically but also adapt their individual techniques accordingly.

Say, as the Wolfpack hard hedge a pick-and-roll, the defender on the ball goes over the pick and chases the dribbler. This leaves the weak side vulnerable because someone from there will help on the roller. Hence the offense will often want to throw a skip pass to a spot-up shooter on the weak side. That is why both on-the-ball defenders must have their hands high above their heads in order to aggressively discourage that skip pass:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 12.00.03

It’s not easy or customary for big men to slide with their hands held up high. Or for guards to chase the ball in the same fashion. In their club teams players may use different technique. Yet while in the Wolfpack they are able to play in an altogether different mode.

These three levels of collectivism cannot be properly showcased in a series of short video clips. Rather I suggest watching a whole game, like this one, where Finns beat the Greeks in Eurobasket 2013:

When it comes to the sum of its parts, there is a huge difference between Team USA and Wolfpack. Were they eligible, no individual Wolf would come within a mile to even being considered for Team USA. Even though the Wolfpack will play more collectivistically, there is little doubt about who wins the game.

The game between the two teams will be interesting, though. The question becomes: how much can collectivism do for an underdog?

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Comments

  1. Very interesting stuff. It’s too bad Scottie Pippen never decided to switch allegiances to play for this nation in his dotage! I’d love to hear your take on the Philippines (which I take are playing in a major international bball tournament for the first time in 30+ yrs)

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Interesting look at the national team of Finland, where Scottie Pippen played a few games after his NBA retirement: “Their collective decision-making has become automatized to a degree that will not be achieved by any other team in the World Cup. There is no hesitation, no delays, no second-guessing.
    That’s the reason why rumors about NBA veteran Drew Gooden joining the Wolfpack in the last minute never sounded plausible to me. I thought Gooden would have damaged the collectivism of the team, and the net gain would have been negative. “

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